TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Two years ago employees of Blackwater, a U.S. security firm, opened fire in a crowded square in downtown Baghdad — 17 Iraqis were killed, dozens were wounded. Iraqi and American officials were outraged. And eventually, Blackwater lost its rich security contract with the State Department in Iraq. On the front page of the “New York Times” today, we learned a little bit more about what happened after the shootings. About how Blackwater tried to buy the silence of some key Iraqi officials. Mark Mazzetti had the report about what became a milestone in how private security firms operate overseas. Good to have you with us.
Mark Mazzetti: Thanks for having me.
Ryssdal: These payments that you lay out in the paper today, they were in essence hush money for the Blackwater guards having shot civilians in Nisour Square that day.
Mazzetti: As we understand it, the money, about a million dollars that was sent in from Amman, Jordan to Iraq was designed for to pay Iraqi officials to silence their criticism of the company after the Nisour Square shooting, which took place in September 2007. It was also designed to sort of smooth the path for the company to get an operating license and not be kicked out of the country where, as we reported, Blackwater was operating on a very lucrative State Department contract worth a couple hundred of millions of dollars a year.
Ryssdal: Did any money actually change hands?
Mazzetti: As we put in the story, it’s a little unclear, exactly whether the payouts happened and if so, to whom in the Iraqi government they went to. We have detailed the authorization of the payments by Blackwater president Gary Jackson, and that the money went from Amman, Jordan into Iraq and were given to Rich Garner who was the Iraq country manager for Blackwater. At that point it’s a little unclear what happened with the money. Now, Blackwater continued to operate in the country until earlier this year, when ultimately the Iraqi government said that they were not going to extend an operating license to the company.
Ryssdal: In large part because of the events of Nisour Square, right?
Mazzetti: Yeah, it was one of several events. Blackwater, as many know, is a very controversial company. And inside of Iraq there were a lot of allegations not only on Nisour Square, but on other cases of firing first, asking questions later. And a lot of indiscriminate shooting and indiscriminate causalities on the part of Blackwater operatives.
Ryssdal: It’s worth mentioning right about here that on the merits of your story today, specifically, the company denies it, and Gary Jackson, the former president, who you say authorized these payments, basically said, I don’t care what you guys write.
Mazzetti: He said I don’t care what we write, and Cofer Black, one of the executives we talk about in the story, issued a statement that said he’s unaware of a specific plan to bribe Iraqi officials.
Ryssdal: You know, the entire event at Nisour Square was sort of a watershed for the issue of private contractors operating in war zones, providing these kinds of services. Has anything come out of U.S. policymaking that’s going to change the way these kinds of things are handled?
Mazzetti: Well, for a long time starting in 2004, contractors basically were immune to Iraqi law. So they could operate in Iraq and were not subject to the laws of the host country. That has changed, where they’re under different operating rules now. And the government says, the U.S. government says, there’s a lot more oversight of private security contractors. It’s hard to really to assess those claims about whether they really are under much more control and whether there is a lot more oversight, but at the very least they are subject to the host nation’s laws.
Ryssdal: Have you guys gotten any calls from the State Department today about this report and about what might happen as result of it?
Mazzetti: We’re still reporting the story, and we have not had an official response from the State Department yet.
Ryssdal: Unofficial response?
Mazzetti: Uh, we’re continuing to report it, and continuing to try to talk to people about it.
Ryssdal: Mark Mazzetti, the national securities correspondent for the New York Times. Mark, thanks a lot.
Mazzetti: OK, thanks.
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